My favorite Pascal Siakam memory came in the waning moments of the Raptors’ Game 1 victory over the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals, en route to the first and only championship in franchise history.
Effort, athleticism, and skill were just beginning to alchemize for Siakam, then in his third season. He wasn’t as agile dribbling with his left hand then, which Draymond Green knew well when he allowed Siakam to take off from a meter behind the 3-point line and clonk a contested layup, only to watch the bouncy then-25-year-old spring right back up and tip the ball in from the other side of the rim.
It was, to that point, peak Siakam: chaotic yet balletic, stretching his unruly limbs just a little farther than advisable, with boldness that would have been misplaced if not for his exuberance and effort. It was his highest-scoring game in that playoff run. And yet he was just scratching the surface on the player he’d eventually become.
In 2012, the first time Masai Ujiri laid eyes on Siakam, the teenager was at a Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa, and only because he was visiting his sister on his way back to seminary school. Siakam rose from a kid raised in Douala, Cameroon, to a surprise first-round pick to a G League champion to an NBA champion. He grew from a rim-running defender with a maddening spin move who smiled after every missed 3-pointer (a league-high 78 percent of them in his sophomore season) to a three-level scorer and All-NBA-er. He embodied a somewhat contradictory mix of courage and incremental improvement, with an implacable self-belief that made even failure joyful and instructive, evocative of the flourishing franchise he played for. As it stands, in Raptors history, he is top five in total games, minutes, points, assists, rebounds, and triple-doubles.
It would have been nice to watch those numbers keep climbing, but the writing was on the wall when the season started and Siakam, who will be a free agent this summer, hadn’t been extended. The Raptors reportedly made it clear to Siakam that even if he became eligible for a supermax, they wouldn’t offer him one. Siakam wanted to keep betting on his own improvement. For a while, the Raptors had too. And then, earlier this week, they finally decided they didn’t, trading him to the Pacers and closing the book on the team that won a championship almost five years ago.
In recent years, both Siakam and the Raptors lost some of what made them great. The Raptors’ cadre of long, athletic wings should have swarmed opponents on defense and rammed the ball down their throats in transition, but the vision never quite coalesced. Meanwhile, even as Siakam made good on his potential despite Toronto’s turbulence, something about his game became metronomic. It grew dispiriting to watch the guy who once led the NBA in 3-point shots contested play middling defense, the guy who forged his place on the court through hustle settle for too many long-range jumpers. The joyful exuberance that made his development such a delight was lost. Something needed to change.
Siakam himself put it best early in the season: “One thing people always talk about is, ‘Is it fun? Is it not fun? Was last year fun?’ Winning is fun. At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do. I don’t care how excited you get. All this [talk] about vibes and stuff—I mean, at the end of the day, if you win, you are going to have good vibes. If you don’t, the vibe is not going to be good most of the time.”
If there’s one thing Siakam will find in Indiana, with a franchise that has regained its historic hoops mystique thanks to the fast-passing hands of Tyrese Haliburton, it’s fun. The Pacers play at the same blistering pace that first earned Siakam acclaim, and they need him to defend and drive into the space created by Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and Myles Turner. The open runway will be a path to something completely new, for both sides.
Siakam’s success is deeply interconnected with Ujiri’s mission to showcase and uplift the lives of the people in his home continent of Africa through basketball. It’s the reason he had the early track on Siakam, and part of why trading OG Anunoby, who is of Nigerian descent, and Siakam in the span of three weeks has been so difficult.
“I just wanted to say thank you to them for everything they bring,” Ujiri said of Siakam and Anunoby during a press conference on Thursday, before correcting himself. “Brought,” he said, swallowing hard and tapping his hand on his heart before continuing. “These things happen, but that one was close to me. I hate to go on this rant, but on what I think of the world, globally, and what these guys represent and where I come from, where they come from, it’s meant a lot to me,” he said. In these moments, when Ujiri is at his most impassioned, he reminds you that team-building is an art and a science, requiring both heart and heartlessness.
Masai Ujiri on his bond with Pascal Siakam:— THE SHIFT (@theshift_sports) January 18, 2024
"Two African guys that won a championship. I share that with him ... Again, I say to you guys, that guy's success is my success no matter where he is." pic.twitter.com/opzpzQI0a0
The truth is, while Ujiri has developed a reputation as a calculated dealmaker, he has never liked giving up too fast. It’s been both the propellant and stymying force of his decade-long tenure as Raptors president. That approach paved the way for his team’s incremental rise through the Eastern Conference, which ultimately ended in a championship. It created space for Siakam and Fred VanVleet to blossom into two of the league’s greatest player-development success stories. A team that stakes so much of its success on development must, by necessity, value patience. Siakam, the Raptors’ greatest developmental success story, is a testament to that.
But eventually, the developmental gems from the past got in the way of the future. The overlap between Anunoby, Siakam, and Scottie Barnes might have been smoothed out by more spacing and transition opportunities. VanVleet’s presence last year, however, clearly impeded Barnes’s ambitions to be a point guard. Patience withered into stagnation, and then a step back. As the 2023 deadline approached, even as the Raptors were faltering, the front office doubled down, trading a top-six protected 2024 first-round pick for Jakob Poeltl’s rim protection and rebounding.
“I am patient—maybe to a fault,” said Ujiri. “I was patient with that team last year because I believed in them. I believed in those players and I believed in what they brought. But now we have to look to the future.”
Every day the Raptors waited to trade Siakam was a day their opportunity to turn the present into a springboard for the future flatlined a little more. The Raptors didn’t get 21-year-old Bennedict Mathurin, a 2023 Rookie of the Year finalist who grew up in Montreal, nor did they get the rapidly improving Andrew Nembhard. They got two middling first-round picks in the 2024 draft, the Pacers’ 2026 first-round top-four-protected pick, Bruce Brown, reserve shooter Jordan Nwora, and Kira Lewis Jr., a fourth-year former lottery pick with a sub-40-percent career field goal percentage.
Taken with the Anunoby trade—which brought back young players Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett from the Knicks—the through line for Toronto’s deadline dealing is flexibility. “We’re going to grow gradually and try to build this team the right way,” Ujiri said.
In predicting what will come next, the incrementalism of the past is a good reference point. Ujiri is willing to deal just about anyone and everyone—even if he makes it sound like a tooth extraction—but that doesn’t mean he will, unless the right deal comes along.
The picks Toronto got for Siakam could be consolidated into a trade, or they could turn into future Raptors. Guard Gary Trent Jr. will be a free agent after this season and could help a contender starved for shooting, but a Raptors lineup showcasing Barnes’s playmaking and rim pressure could use him just as much. Dennis Schröder has another year left on his deal, but his role in Toronto is unclear after the arrival of Quickley and Brown.
Ujiri, who stands by the value proposition of trading a first-rounder for a starting center, also hinted that the loss could be recuperated if the franchise chooses to trade Poeltl, who just signed a four-year deal this summer. Right now, Poeltl is out indefinitely with a left ankle injury. His absence, and Precious Achiuwa’s departure in the Anunoby trade, have cleared the way for Jontay Porter, a high-IQ two-way-contract player who could develop into the modern screening, shot-blocking, floor-spacing center that unlocks Toronto’s dribble-drive game. If and when Poeltl is back, will his presence once again cut into the progress of a younger player? If there’s any lesson from the Raptors’ post-championship atrophy, it’s that patience has its consequences.
Most of the attention has turned to whether the newly acquired Brown, who has a team option for $23 million next season, will be dealt. The Knicks, a recent Raptors trading partner that met with Brown over the summer in free agency, reportedly have interest in trading for him. But the Raptors may choose to hold on to Brown, who is an ideal fit next to Barnes.
In his first game with Toronto Thursday night against Chicago, Brown showed the intuitive genius that allowed him to be a plug-and-play contributor for the superteam Nets and world-champion Nuggets. He played off Quickley and Barnes like he once played off Nikola Jokic and Haliburton, lubricating the offense with movement, shooting, quick swings, and a few pinpoint passes of his own, while also playing versatile defense that allowed Darko Rajakovic to trot out the smallest lineups of his tenure.
Time will tell whether Barnes is, as Rajokovic insists, the future face of the NBA. But he is certainly the face of the Raptors’ present and future, and every move they make from here must account for his skill set and age. In that sense, dealing Anunoby for Quickley, a 24-year-old dead-eye pull-up shooter with All-Star potential, was a stroke of genius. It will also, as Ujiri stressed, take time, as the duo lab-designed to initiate and run off pretty, multivariate dribble handoffs for each other finds its footing.
Toronto’s first two games without Siakam were a blueprint for Barnes’s potential and limitations. He tallied 20 points and eight assists in a win over the Heat, as Quickley, Barrett, and Trent poured in points around him. And against Chicago, Barnes posted 31, 7, and 6, but made two crucial turnovers in crunch time, stepping on the baseline on a drive and then coughing the ball up on a post-up. Chicago dominated the paint and escaped with a six-point victory, while the Raptors have plenty of positives to build on.
The biggest question about Barnes—whether he’s meant to be the ultimate connective, plug-every-hole second option, or whether he can blossom into a no. 1 option—is more conceptual than practical. Thanks to his versatility, there is an adaptability inherent to Barnes’s game that the Raptors have embodied in their first two games without Siakam—especially with Brown in the lineup. Anyone can make plays, cut, score, and rebound. Over the last two games, Toronto has dished 65 assists on 87 made field goals. The movement, malleability, and abundance of opportunity make for an ideal developmental proving ground, as the Raptors figure who, exactly, should be doing what. They may have a lot of losses like this in the future, but it will give them an opportunity to do something they haven’t done in years: be better than they were yesterday.
It was fitting that Toronto faced Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, two of the most important players to ever wear a Raptors jersey, in the first games of this new era. Their presence will always conjure memories, but Chris Boucher is now the only old teammate left for them to reminisce with. Even Vince Carter, calling the Bulls-Raptors game for TNT, was in the house. Their returns, which once prompted tributes, now invite a smattering of applause. As time passes, even miracles become memories, but consequences linger. With DeRozan, the Raptors perfected the balancing act between restraint and action. With Lowry, they paid the price for dragging their feet. The Raptors honored Siakam’s contributions this week and, four and a half years after raising their first banner, closed the book on a glorious era. The ramifications of holding on will only be revealed in time. With reflection comes reckoning and, finally, reinvention.